Friday, January 09, 2009

As a rule theater artists don't respond directly to reviews—there's a strong tradition that to do so is classless and doesn't allow the work to speak for itself, and a a general rule it's one that I agree with.

HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA is a different beast in some respects—because so much of what it says is about our industry itself, I've been thinking it might change this paradigm in a limited way. As an experiment I'm responding to some of the points in this review where they are about policy and position—I won't be responding to any of the review which directly addresses the performance itself.

"He suggests that corporations have commodified theater and have sacrificed artistic vision for growth and self-preservation."

To be clear, I have suggested that institutions have adopted an increasingly corporatized business model, and that they've sacrificed continuity and community by outsourcing artists. I do believe this impacts artistic vision over time, but my arguments are pitched at a deeper and more fundamental issue than programming. The show is largely agnostic with regards to programming decisions, and that is by design.

"But anyone - individual or corporation - can produce theater..."

This is manifestly untrue, and in fact the monologue is dedicated in part to its refutation. Only people understand theater. A corporation can hire people to make theater, but they can not actually produce any theater, because they do not understand it.

"...and self-preservation is an imperative of far broader range than theater. In fact, we seldom see companies unconcerned with self-preservation because such companies are generally, um, not preserved."

I agree—in fact, I speak about this at length in the fifth scene—the need of all corporations and institutions to perpetuate themselves, which is a part of the central conundrum of all growth. The fact that this process is far larger than theater is clearly acknowledged in the piece, and its the wrestling between our need and desire for institutions and the loss of control that inevitably comes with growth that is central to understanding the state of theater today. I don't understand how this point refutes what was said in the show—it may be that I am not comprehending what Mr. Treanor is getting at here.

"Daisey believes that the gorgeous new buildings American theaters are constructing have trapped them into uninspired, ultraconservative productions."

Once again, my concern is that the emphasis on buildings and real estate traps theaters into not creating artistic ensembles that draw strength from their communities, which then in turn weaken the art form by outsourcing acting and not giving necessary stability to the artists that could actually be the backbone of those theaters. While I do think this kind of corporate thinking in many cases leads to bad productions, I was very clear in scene three that often it does work—many individual productions are excellent, when individual artists make things work, regardless of the environment they are in. This is not only a flattening of the piece—it is just not what I'm speaking about.

"Freedom from expensive surroundings is no guarantee of theatrical quality."

I never implied that it was. Many terrible plays being produced in cheap venues constantly, certainly.

The error here is conflating an absolute of "theatrical quality" with my intentions. I'm interested in a fundamental shift in how the regional theaters of America conceive of themselves, and a value change that involves foster and supporting artists within their cities to create work. It's my belief that local connection and continuity plays a large part of the tissue needed to make things work.

Do we need theatrical quality? Absolutely. Of course we do—that's obvious. HOW we achieve that end, and what kind of theater we have in this country to make these productions happen is the concern of my monologue. Once again, the piece does not slavishly concern itself with the kinds of theater being performed—the concern is that the living moment and experience is happening, AND that it be working toward environments where communities can form to actually care and foster that work.

"The solution is to produce good theater, which is a success whether it is produced in a spare room behind a bar or in a 750-seat amphitheater, or on Woolly Mammoth's main stage."

While I appreciate the warmth and spirit in which this is intended, I have to actually disagree with this as a solution—it presupposes that the problem with our theater today is that people simply don't do enough good theater. If more good theater were being done, everything would solve itself.

This is, sadly, extremely naive. The truth is that arts dollars and funding is dominated by huge theaters, which eat up resources. The truth is that these large theaters dictate the terms of an industry which currently doesn't value artists or community, and instead seems them as disposable, replaceable, trash. It also does nothing to address the real issues in diminishing audience volume and diminishing mindshare.

While every great production is a wondrous thing to be celebrated, we still have an obligation as people who love and are compelled by theater to ask serious questions and push back when needed. Turning a blind eye by saying "if it's good art, it's good" is wrong—it's letting a broken marketplace dictate the terms of what it will mean to be a theater artist in America in the 21st century. It simplifies a complex landscape into a thumbs-up, thumbs-down landscape and that's not what we need.

12:28 AM